A Weekend in Ellisras

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 14.44.19I FIRST met Hamilton Wessels seven years ago at the Vancouver Rowers, a rugby club where the players were truly dedicated to their drinking and would, on occasion, match that level of commitment on the field also.

‘Hammy’ travelled to Canada from his home in South Africa along with one of his compatriots, Rogan Schulze, a few months after I had arrived in Vancouver with a significant delegation from Limerick. Like everyone else who played with the Rowers that season, I was a fully-fledged member of the Rogan and Hammy Fan Club within minutes of meeting them.

Both were unflappably positive in their outlook, modest about their considerable talents on the rugby field, genuinely interested in getting to know everyone they encountered and about as laid back as one can be without being prostrate on the floor. Hammy’s mystique was only added to when we discovered, a few weeks after his arrival, that he had been the drummer in the band for his brother, who was a legitimately famous performer in South Africa.

Rowers

The Vancouver Rowers, in the act of ‘living the dream’

The South African boys had a selection of trademark phrases that they liked to use when we were celebrating victory or defeat in the Rowers clubhouse (which may very well be the most beautiful rugby clubhouse in the world. Seriously, Google it). Their fondness for saying “living the dream” had us all saying it frequently before too long. Another favourite of Hammy’s, reserved for when someone was considering having an early night, was to look, almost tearfully, straight into the deserter’s eyes and say: “But we’re so young”.

A few years after we all left Canada, Rogan came on a trip to Ireland, having travelled to Brussels from his then workplace in Saudi Arabia and deciding that since he was so close to his Irish friends, it would be a shame not to pay a visit. We had a ball while he was there, taking him to a number of the incredible attractions that Ireland has to offer but which most of us wait until a foreigner arrives to visit.

The day I booked my flights to South Africa a few months ago, Rogan and Hammy were the first two people I contacted. Unfortunately, work still has Rogan located away from his homeland but, without having planned it, Hammy’s home was a relatively short distance from where I would be staying in Jo’burg. Being a gentleman, he offered straight away to collect me from the airport.

Having been on separate continents for the last six years, and since neither of us feels the need to share the details of every meal on Facebook, we hadn’t kept abreast of every aspect of each other’s lives since parting ways in Canada. Therefore, the first twenty minutes of the journey from the airport was spent recounting the highlights of our lives since 2011.

One particularly noteworthy highlight for Hammy was having gotten married to a wonderful wife named Chandre, who is a lady in every sense of the word. No children yet, he informed me, but he is currently getting in some practice at being a parent with a big Golden Labrador who also came along for the journey to collect me at O.R. Tambo Airport.

In turn, I regaled him with the major features of my last half decade, including having gotten a cat and returning to college yet again. Neither act seemed like an enormous step forward in life by comparison to the married business-owner at the time, but Hammy had enough class to make me feel as though both choices were characteristic of a winner.

Regardless of the momentous changes in both of our lives, though, the important stuff had stayed the same. As before, Hammy had a perma-smile on his face and was always seconds away from delivering a hilarious one-liner in his thick Afrikaans accent.

In the weeks after I arrived, Hammy and Chandre showed incredible kindness to me, bringing me to parties with their friends and putting me up in their house. However, the pièces de résistance of the welcome they have shown me so far came recently on a weekend spent at Chandre’s parents’ home in Ellisras, Limpopo Province, a few hours north of Jo’burg.

We split into two vehicles for the drive up with Hammy, myself and his Labrador, Saccy, in one car, and Chandre, her sister-in-law and nephew and niece in the other. Not too far outside the City, we entered the Bushveld, and the topography changed entirely from what I had been used to in my few weeks in South Africa.

The landscape was flat for as far as the eye could see and much browner than the countryside an Irishman would be used to, but incredibly beautiful in an entirely different way.

Hammy starting telling me about his in-laws’ farm on the way North, and in particular about the selection of animals there. As delighted as I was at the possibility of seeing giraffes, baboons and every sort of deer, I shuddered at the prospect of coming across the black mamba snake, which he said is also quite common in the area. Amongst the fastest and most venomous of snakes, black mambas can cause death within hours from just one bite. If I got really lucky, Hammy went on, I might even come across a scorpion too.

After an hour or so, we stopped for a selection of biltong, which Afrikaans folks seem to survive on almost exclusively. It’s a form of dried, cured meat, cut into chewy strips, and can be made from a variety of different animals. All of the shops around Jo’burg sell bags of biltong at the counters in the same way we sell Mars and Snickers bars, but the real nice stuff comes from the biltong-dedicated shops.

At one such store we loaded up with several brown bags of the lovely chewy strips. For much of the remainder of the journey, we both forewent chatting for chewing, speaking on occasion only to remark upon how bloody delicious the biltong was. The last two hours of the drive were spent driving through farmland, peppered with all sorts of (to me at least) exotic wildlife, including kudus, impalas, sable antelopes, springboks and even a few warthogs.

We arrived in Ellisras in the early evening and I was introduced to our warm and welcoming hosts. As if Hammy had telepathically conveyed my apprehension about encountering a snake, Chandre’s father Alan immediately showed me the various small burn marks on the exterior of his house, each of which represented locations where he had shot adventurous black mambas over the years.

Once, he told me to my horror, he had been walking under a large tree out the front of his house and a snake had dropped an inch behind him from one of the branches overhead. All of a sudden, I became retroactively grateful for having grown up on a farm with docile, harmless cows.

Screenshot_2017-03-11-07-29-05With the bejesus scared out of me, Alan kindly offered to prove that horrors didn’t wait around every corner on his farm by taking Hammy and I for a drive around in his pick-up. All talk of snakes and scorpions left my mind within minutes as we encountered a beautiful young giraffe, one of four on the farm, within about half a mile of the house. He looked at us with the same level of curiosity as we displayed towards him for a brief moment, before getting back to the important business of eating leaves from an adjacent tree.

Probably sensing that my blood pressure had dropped to normal levels at the sight of a friendly animal, Alan told me that a visiting crocodile had also been spotted on the farm the day before and had sadly killed his neighbour’s dog. One of the workers on the farm had spotted the crocodile through the scope of his gun and estimated that he measured around three metres long. The closest large body of water, the Limpopo River, was about 40 kilometres away, meaning he had covered that distance over land so as to coincide his visit to the farm with my own.

There is a good chance that the crocodile was one of 15,000 that were released into the Limpopo in 2013 during rising floodwaters. They had been living on a Limpopo-based crocodile farm (which sounds about as necessary as a zoo that houses nightmares), which had to open its floodgates to the river because of fears the rising water would crush the animals.

We had a delicious dinner out on the front lawn that evening. In fact, every meal we had for the rest of the weekend took place under the sun or the stars. Over a few post-dinner drinks, I told my hosts of the several times as a child when I had eaten meals outside in the rain because we Hogans were determined to act like it was summer, even if the weather wasn’t going to cooperate.

Early the following morning, Chandre, Hammy and I went for a run on one of the farm’s sandy roads, before the heat made it impossible. After breakfast, Hammy, Chandre’s brother (also Alan) and I went on the hunt for the visiting crocodile.

This involved the three of us driving around to a few of the farm’s different watering holes, including one where the misfortunate dog was floating belly up. There, we would carefully skulk around the water’s edge, with me firmly in the rearguard, looking for a sign of the visitor.

Never before have I wished such bad luck upon myself when searching for something. If St. Anthony had a hell-based nemesis, I would have offered a blood sacrifice to him right there and then. Thankfully, though, that wasn’t necessary. The crocodile stayed hidden and we returned home in one piece.

As a nerves-settler, for my nerves at least, Hammy and I went to a local bar next to Alan’s farm later that day. The area has a large Afrikaans farming population and the bar showed all the signs of it, with a mixture of rugby-themed pictures and several animal heads adorning the walls.

A guy came in shortly after us wearing an Irish rugby jersey. I hailed him from across the bar, saying that I liked his clothing choice, but the guy just looked at me as curiously as the giraffe had the day before and turned back to speaking with his friend. Hammy explained that some of the Afrikaans folk from around here wouldn’t have very good English and that in all likelihood the guy hadn’t understood me.

The next day, we went in search of a different kind of prey, one that is still dangerous but that sits several rungs lower on the predator ladder than a crocodile. Alan’s farm is the home to many wild warthogs and Hammy reasoned that it would be a shame to visit the farm without trying my hand at shooting one.

Many people, including some of my friends, are horrified at the idea of hunting but unless those people are vegetarians, I think there’s an inherent hypocrisy about that position. Animals that are killed by hunters have invariably lived a much better life than those that have provided meat for supermarket purchase.

If one is opposed to the use of animals for food then their opposition to hunting is entirely consistent with their other views, but if someone dislikes hunting and still eats meat, their stance is misinformed, confused or both.

As a meat-eater, I have always reasoned that I’d like to try hunting just to find out whether or not I would be able to go through with the entire process of killing the animal so that I can eat it (in this case, in the form of warthog burgers). If the experience proved too much for my sensibilities, I honestly think I’d become a vegetarian.

To not do so would mean simply offloading my dirty work on to someone else and continuing to benefit from a process that I find too repulsive to be even a temporary full participant.

Hammy and I packed an ice pack with a few beers and snacks and, with a rifle slung over my shoulder, headed for a hide next to one of the farm’s lakes. Beforehand, I got briefed on the ethics of the situation, with Hammy telling me that young hogs and mothers with piglets were off limits.

So as to not frighten off any thirsty warthogs, we said very little to one another for the several hours that we were in the hide. In silence, we sat looking out through the hole in the structure, hoping to catch sight or sound of one of the farm’s many hogs.

Looking at and listening to the wilderness with such intensity for so long reminded me of the few times that I’d practiced mindfulness meditation. There was a lovely peace to the whole experience despite our murderous intent.

Alas, my moment of self-discovery will have to wait until another day, as not a single hog crossed our path the entire time we were there. The closest we came was an enormous lizard that walked past us, stopping for a moment to fix us with a look of absolute indifference.IMG-20170312-WA0015

Despite our returning to the house empty handed from our hunt that evening, we were still treated to a delicious braai on the front lawn of the house, after which we lamented how quickly the weekend had passed. Such is the nature of all things idyllic though.

The following afternoon, we hit the road back to Jo’burg, with some biltong left to munch on, memories to savour and yet another entry for my long and growing list of instances of outstanding South African hospitality.

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